Xi Jinping is the most powerful Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping. No, Xi is the most powerful leader since Mao Zedong! No, Xi is as powerful as Mao! You’ve probably read these a million times since Xi came to power in 2012. Yet, is Xi really as powerful as the founder of Communist China, who later started the Cultural Revolution, or as the man who opened China to the world and put it on track to become an economic superpower?
Hyperbole is only natural in the absence of a thorough analysis of Xi’s power, one that places him in historical context. The 19th Party Congress in October will be the real test of Xi’s power. But, for the moment, there really aren’t signs that justify the comparison with Deng or Mao. Two or three years ago when the analogies started, the only sign was the anti-corruption campaign, whose intensity was greatly exaggerated.
“They underestimated his staying power earlier and now are overestimating his influence to avoid being wrong again”. This is what China scholar Bo Zhiyue had to say about observers of China and their perception of Jiang Zemin’s power. But the quote could easily apply today in the case of their perception of Xi Jinping’s power. Back in 2012, after the 18th Congress, numerous analysts predicted that Xi would be a weak leader, because the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) was, in their reading, stacked with Jiang’s allies, while Xi had no faction of his own. Fast-forward five years, and Xi became Mao
How did this happen? The explanation is simple: the anti-corruption surprised everybody and it was misinterpreted as proof of Xi’s power. Add to this Xi’s desire to centralize power and to create new institutions and he started being seen as “the Chairman of everything”. Of course, Mao was simply Chairman of the party, while Deng was just a retiree after 1989, yet both commended immense influence without numerous titles.
The mistaken narrative about the anti-corruption campaign gave birth to the “Xi as Mao” narrative, which in turn created another narrative, about Xi’s desire to remain in power after 2022. But all these narratives are wrong. While the evidence of Xi’s power was over-publicized, the signs regarding the limits of his power were utterly ignored, as they went against the established narrative. But if we take a look at all the evidence and try to place Xi in historical perspective, what would the result be?
The power of precedent
Let’s start with a discussion about precedent in China. As Christopher Johnson put it, “Chinese politics has no rules”. The institutionalization of China’s political system over the past 20 years has been based on informal and unwritten rules and norms. But how can we call them “rules” or “norms” if in fact they are unwritten and could be ignored? In Chinese politics, it would be far more helpful to talk about precedents.
There is no rule that says that Chinese politicians need to retire at 68. But there are clear precedents that pressure current politicians into retirement once they reach that age. There are no rules that say a Party General Secretary must retire after two terms, but there are clear precedents that force them to do so.
How powerful is precedent? We can find a very good analogy in the United States. When it came into force in 1789, the Constitution said nothing about presidential term limits. A president could rule forever, if the people loved him. But America’s first President, George Washington, decided to do something different: after only two terms, he retired. There was no rule to force him to do so. And there was no rule to force Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe or Andrew Jackson to do so. Yet, invariably, all have retired after two terms. This precedent created by George Washington’s example has been respected for over 150 years. Only Franklin Roosevelt, in 1940, when war was raging in Europe and Asia, broke this precedent. And once that happened, the unwritten rule was finally codified in the Constitution, so that no other president could ever attempt the same. 150 years. Precedent might not be written, but it is powerful.
Ask yourself: didn’t any of all these presidents want to remain in office for more than two terms? Were they not human beings, instead of saints, driven by the desire to rule? Indeed, Ulysses Grant wanted to run for a third term and Theodore Roosevelt tried to win a third, non-consecutive term, in 1912. Yet most presidents acquiesced in following Washington’s precedent. Odds are that, had they tried to break this precedent, they would have been submitted to ferocious attacks about becoming dictators and betraying the spirit of previous presidents.
As precedent is unwritten, the only constraint is political pressure. If a Chinese leader is truly powerful, he could break some precedents, because he wouldn’t be constrained by political pressure. We can start testing Xi’s power by seeing how he was constrained by precedent, especially in the context of the narrative that Xi plans to remain in office after 2022.
Xi versus precedent
Did Xi Jinping take down members of the Politburo Standing Committee, like Deng Xiaoping did? No. How many members of the Politburo has he purged? One, like Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao in their first term. Did Xi manage to insert any of his allies into the Politburo or the PSC in-between congresses, like Jiang did with Huang Ju in 1994? No. Did Xi manage to keep any of his allies, like Xia Baolong or Liu Yuan, active even after they reached retirement age? No.
This doesn’t mean that Xi didn’t break any precedent. His promotions of Cai Qi, Chen Min’er and Ying Yong have been, in The Economist’s words, “rocket-style promotions”. Somebody not on the Central Committee, like Cai Qi, has never previously been named Party Secretary of Beijing. Jiang Zemin didn’t manage to pick his own successor, having to accept Hu Jintao, Deng Xiaoping’s choice. Jiang couldn’t even get an ally to succeed Hu – Xi Jinping wasn’t in Jiang’s Shanghai faction, having never worked with Jiang. Xi was simply the compromise candidate. Today, on the other hand, Xi seems to be grooming Chen Min’er as his successor, having taken down one of the politicians who had a chance to succeed him, Sun Zhengcai. Xi has appeared in the People’s Daily far more than Hu, Jiang or even Deng.